Two boys in 1970s Maine help each other weather tragedy.
Robert Carter’s friendship with the new kid in town, Nathan Tilly, gets off to a strong start in the middle school boys’ room, where Nathan rescues him from a bully who has been beating the crap out of him year after year. Things head south the next day though, when Nathan’s ebullient, kite-flying dad, who has promised to take them out for ice cream, falls off the roof of their house to his death, also crushing a mongoose named Philippe Petit (after the World Trade Center tightrope walker). This precipitous turn of events makes you wonder what to expect from the author—bold narrative moves or gratuitous tragedy? The answer is both. The highlight of the book is Fun-A-Lot, an amusement park owned by the Carter family. “The court of Camelot had been re-created on the coast of Southern Maine—Olde England in New England, as the legend above the gates put it. Teenage knights clanked about in ill-fitting plastic armor and damsels swept up and down the pathways in bodices garlanded with ribbons.” (Shades of George Saunders’ “My Chivalric Fiasco,” though without the drugs.) As much as Robert’s father hates his amusement park, it’s dwarfed by the main source of misery in his life: Robert’s older brother, Liam, who is gradually being debilitated by Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Liam’s inexorable death, accompanied by a blistering soundtrack of the punk music he loves, devastates his family. But it does not slake the author’s thirst for mayhem, as the final chapters of the book zip us back to World War II for mass murder of innocent civilians, kill off another main character, and throw in a little frustrated pedophilia.
George (A Good American, 2012, etc.) can’t separate his good ideas from his bad ones, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here.